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Monday, 14 August 2017

Firestorm Armada Core Race Expansion Sets

So now we have the blog Spartan should have put up before they started their Kickstarter, we can see some details of the planned Core Race Expansions, and it doesn't make for pretty reading for me. Why? Read on (Spoiler - contains jaded opinions about Spartan Games' current behaviour - do not ingest if sensitive to honest but scathing opinion).

Core Race Expansions - A Good Thing, right?

Well, possibly....

Expansions should be added for a reason, other than "the company needs to sell more models". Ultimately, this goes down to why a company exists, it's heart and soul. For me, a gaming company needs to be about gaming - it needs to have that at its core...if it doesn't, it comes through in everything they do, and what they do doesn't ring true. Of course companies exist to make money to continue doing what they do, but that shouldn't be an end point - it should be a means to it's end (which is growing its games). 

Take GW as a case in point. They used to be a games company - founded by gamers who didn't want to grow up. It was successful- enormously so, and grew to behemoth proportions. Still, in the late 90's-early noughties, it was still a games company - lots of hobby tips (for free) on its website, GW stores were places people went to congregate, paint and play. People inside and out were passionate about games.

Then it started being run by executives.

Sometimes, this can be a good thing - execs bring focus and timelines, spreadsheets and analysis that can really help companies improve, cut out waste, do more god stuff. Sometimes they end up controlling things and the bottom line becomes the important thing, and the rest is a mantle upon which it rests. Prices go up, free stuff starts being removed and replaced with chargeable extras, things are pushed out because they're low volume sellers, and the execs start directing company direction. People leave because "it just isn't the company it used to be". These things are picked up by the community, because things start to feel different in the game.

This behaviour really hurt GW for the past decade. Now they've a new CEO who seems to understand that the "Games" in GW means something to its customers, and is getting back towards the company it used to be. Hell, they even released a pack of skulls, which if isn't taking the piss out of themselves (in a profitable way" then I don't know what is. Not to say they still aren't having some crazy pricing decisions (that Primaris Captain and Librarian, for example), but it's early days.

So I'll come back to this point at the end of the blog when I've run through the Tiers and factions;

Tier 3 - Destroyers

"Wait a minute Alex, you said Tier 3, but you're talking about Destroyers..."

Yes, I know. Most factions get "Light Destroyers" (I'll come back to naming conventions later too), a couple get Torpedo Destroyers. So this is one of those "Oh god I hate them" general faction-wide releases that makes no background sense whatsoever. That's the first thing. The main issue I have with this release, however, is that where do these fit in the design space of Firestorm?

What do I mean by this?

Well, as a designer (and I did this for Firestorm for a long time, so I do know what I'm talking about here) there should be a reason for the ship you're designing. That's number one. So you have a role the ship should fit, and then you look at what already exists, and stat the ship according to its role and what has gone before. In general, it should fit with the existing theme of the fleet, with maybe a few differences based on its new role (otherwise why would the race design it?). Stats should be in-line with existing ships and the role, unless it's some ground-breaking new technology. So, in the FSA world, a Destroyer is generally a hard-hitting, but often difficult to spot/hit type of ship (more like a wet-navy submarine). Firepower wise they hit above their weight, especially at longer engagement ranges (with exceptions for those "Ambush" type iterations like the Venom).

Now the Firestorm design space is fairly "tight". DR ranges from 3 to 7, CR from 4 to 13. The lower end of the spectrum is more crowded, because the difference between 3/4 in game is not much and you can't really go above that for a small (as Cruisers start at DR4). So that means a "Light" Tier 3 Destroyer could be "Light" just by the virtue of having a Small hull, rather than difference in weapons, so you have a (for example) 3/5 hull with standard Destroyer weapons.

The problem then is why would you not take these awesome new Smalls over standard Frigates? That kind of Firepower is pretty good on a small ship. Well, you could price them higher, but now you're encroaching into standard destroyer territory - it's only 150 points for a pair of Venoms, whilst its usually around 100 points for a bunch of Frigates. Do you see what I mean by a crowded design space now?

This is why the FFG worked so well at designing ships, because we had twenty-odd players of the game each with a different meta putting in their opinion in the design stage, so we didn't end up with glaring oddities that ended up massively OP or vastly useless. What you really want is a ship design that half of the players think is OK, one-quarter think are OP and one-quarter think is useless. You've usually got it right then.

What should NOT happen is someone decides "you know what, all races need a new small, what should it be - I know, destroyers!" and then this is implemented. That fundamentally breaches Rule Number One - the ship should be derived from a need (perceived or real), not an arbitrary assignment. It's a bit like some god-like entity suddenly saying to all the nations of the world "and you must have Battleships in your navies". We don't need them - they're obsolete, and obsolete for a reason. Shoe-horning them in would be moronic.

Tier 2 - Medical & Repair Ships

Hmmmm. My gut feeling on this is....why? From a fluff point of view, this is madness - you don't repair ships or send in ambulances in the midst of a pitched battle. We already have SRS to cover these functions in v2, what do these add except for sucking out more points and making you buy more resin? If the repair function effectively acts as an add-on Self Repair MAR, then I foresee a lot of issues - it will tend to drag the game out, rather than make it smoother and faster.

This goes back to rationale as I mentioned above for the Tier 3s - what is the reason for introducing a ship type? Did anyone call for any of these ships in their games before (and by that I mean the function rather  than the name)? In other words, is there a gap to be filled? For me, the answer is no.

Tier 2 - The Terran Heavy Gunship

Wait, the Terrans - one of the CP-heaviest factions and one of the fleets most likely to see use of Medical Shuttles - does NOT get Medical ships? Nope, they get a Heavy Gunship. Not a gunship, which of course they don't have, but a Heavy Gunship.

Now a gunship for the Terrans is not a terrible idea, but its also not a great one. Sorting out the role of the Heavy Cruiser (which is essentially a gunship in all but name) would have achieved the same thing, but of course wouldn't have required you to buy more models.

Tier 1

Now here we start to see some apparent variety, so I'll go through them individually:

The Aquan Repair Battleship

Now there's an oxymoron for you - repair battleship. It's like a War Domain cleric....does it fire sticky glue that covers impact blasts? Does it have multiple cranes that attach to other ships and fix them? What? You think I'm being silly? Well it's because it's a fucking STUPID idea, thats why.

The associated fluff basically says its a Battleship which carries Repair Shuttles - or in other words, an Aquan Battleship. All this really indicates is that the normal battleship is restricted in the SRS it can carry (if any) and that this is a Battleship with limited usage. I'll come back to my stock question here - Why? If you're having to create new ship types because of changes you're making to the mechanics, then please, stop.

The Dindrenzi Battle Carrier

So here's a ship type that you can actually see the race developing. The Dindrenzi actually have a decent carrier option, but you can definitely imagine them creating a Battle Carrier, so this is actually one that seems quite rational.

The Sorylian Fleet Carrier

OK, so the fluff makes no sense whatsoever here - "The Sorylians do not make much use of SRS, but when they do it is normally ‘heavy’ in nature." - in fact I'm not sure that's even a proper sentence. Still, the idea of a Fleet carrier for the Sorylians is...meh. They already have a fleet carrier in the Morning Star/Xiphos - again a decent carrier. Surely the Sorylians would be best supported (both in game and in fluff) with an Assault Carrier? Or how about another Battleship to use, since their existing Battleship and Dreadnought are much maligned? No, we get another carrier. :-(

The Terran Battle Carrier

Well I suppose this one was inevitable, despite never being intended as a production model, when you show a render/artwork people are inevitably going to say "Ooh, shiny, when can I buy it?". That's not necessarily a good rationale to base a ship class on, and so we have the Terran battle Carrier, despite the Terrans having one of the two best Fleet Carriers in the game (the other going to the RSN Argus), and good battleships.

So why is a Battle Carrier a bad idea for Terrans? Well, it's either going to have sub-par weapons, in which case if you want SRS the carrier is probably a better idea, or it's going to compete with the battleships (why have a plain battleship when you can have a battleship+?). It also adds a third ship to the Battleship space for the Terrans, when they could really do with choices elsewhere. So whilst not a terrible decision, it is a ship in a crowded spot in a tight design space for the Terrans. It's not very interesting, and it's not very Terran.

The Relthoza Heavy Battleship

So a ship between the Brood and the Apex? Hmmm...I mean, it's possible, but as for the Sorylians, why not an Assault Carrier or Battle Carrier for the Relthoza? Ships that fit with their background and fluff? Why call it a Heavy Battleship? Is the Terran Tyrant a Heavy battleship? Did people have issues distinguishing the Apollo and the Tyrant? No, so what's the point? It's the Why? question again.

The Directorate Fleet Carrier

Oh dear. Not only do the Directorate nor care about their vat-buddies that they're prepared to spend vast amounts of capital to make specific ships that will help them out in the midst of battle, but they're so intent on SRS operations all of a sudden that they make a Fleet carrier, which sounds like a Battle Carrier if you believe the short fluff. It's quoted to be as tough as a Dreadnought, armed to the teeth with beams and cyberweapons (which are due to be bland AOE weapons in v3), and carry loads of bombers and stuff. 

The problem is once again that the Directorate already have a pretty bitching Battleship that does a lot of this in the Anarchist, and they also have the Overseer - a carrier that never needs to decloak. I've seen double-Overseer lists run by Directorate players, and they can be pretty savage. So this ship promises to do all of the Anarchist and Overseer jobs in one, which makes it either too powerful, overcosted or one of the two sides at least partially redundant.

The main issue I have with it though, is it just seems unimaginative. Maybe it'll be ok, but I already have big issues with how the Directorate flavour is being massively diluted with v3 rules. Why would I add another shade of grey to those already available?

Naming Conventions

OK, so this is a personal bugbear. and I know it doesn't bother some people at all, but I hate these arbitrary namings of "Heavy" and "Light". It smacks of a small child trying to win a war of words;

"I've got a gunship"
"Yeah? well I've got a HEAVY gunship"
"That's nothing, I got a Battleship"
"So? I got a HEAVY battleship"

And so on. It smacks of Trump's lack of vocabulary ("It's gonna be really, really great - really"), a lack (once again) of IMAGINATION. Why does that matter? Well, this is meant to be an immersive universe. Why would all factions suddenly create "Light Destroyers"? What's the rationale behind calling a Battleship "Heavy"? The answer to this is - there is no reason - and that (for me) makes the whole announcement sound hollow, a clanging tin bell. I don't think "Cool, a Heavy Battleship", because I'm not 6. I want some meat to my sci-fi, even in a game with plastic spaceships. I may behave like a 12 year old when I'm playing games, but I don't expect to be treated as one mentally.

Verdict - Hit or Miss?

Once again, I don't need to tell you my verdict on this. It only adds to the Kickstarter cash grab feel that SG is developing lately. These announcements in the right environment with the right thought process and rationale behind them would be exciting, and investment and expansion to the universe. What they do instead is highlight the poor planning and lack of creativity that seems to be beleaguering the FA universe (and maybe the whole of SGs portfolio) at the moment.

If I were a potential Kickstarter backer reading this blog, it would not sway me to part with money. Most Kickstarters offering this as part of the campaign or as stretch goals will actually show you what they're doing or planning - here you just have to hope. Even if you think all of these are fantastic ideas, you have no idea what the stats are or what the ships look like - you have to take it on faith. Unfortunately (or rather, Fortunately, for me), I'm an evidence-based guy, and without a shred of it ,being asked to rely on Spartan's word (which is increasingly worth nothing, if it ever were) is purely ludicrous.

I mentioned earlier I'd come back to the point of a company's heart and soul. It seems Spartan is increasingly a model company, rather than a games company. The other pieces - it's rules, it's fluff, it's community support (such as it is) - seem to be "stuck on", after-thoughts  to sell more models, rather than being part of it's DNA. They laughably tout the Kickstarter as being "what you told us you wanted" but they should KNOW what people want, they should be able to sense it intuitively. If they were really customer-focussed gamers at heart, they would (or should, at least). That's a change no-one can force on SG, and it's the reason I've not bought into their products for some time now - why I have a Halo Ground Command box which is still unopened in my gaming room. It's the same reason I got out of 40k and decried GW for what they did to themselves, because no-one wants to feel like a bred-for-its-milk cash cow.

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